For more than 20 years, singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman has been slowly—and righteously—honing her craft and singing songs for the lonely, love-struck, visionary, and vanquished. In 1988, this kid from Cleveland stole our hearts when, for Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday, she stared down an audience of 72,000. With nothing but an acoustic guitar and her shy smile and dreadlocks, Chapman sang “Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution” to a world that had never heard of her.
Our Bright Future, Chapman’s newest release, doesn’t have the anthems of her early years, but listeners are treated to her sweet, serious voice cajoling us to live from our better natures.
Don’t be fooled by the title—Chapman hasn’t downed a happy drink. The title song is a heart-breaking anti-war prayer addressed “to my father /what of your sons? … All of your children /even the ones /sent out to martyr /to face the gun /precious bodies /opposed to bombs … Led on, led on /to take the path /where our bright future /is in our past.” Dean Parks interrogates the listener with his pedal steel, underscoring the question Chapman recently asked a BBC interviewer: “Do we have a bright future if the best our society can ask is to ask young people to risk harm and risk their lives fighting for a cause that may or may not be worthy, that may not have merit?”
Chapman still has her brooding political edge, but here is a more lighthearted, playful soul than we’ve heard for awhile. “Spring,” “Save Us All,” and “Something to See” are paced for a brightness that tilts toward two-stepping praise, especially when clichéd images of babies, new light, and dawn are run up against the melancholia of Chapman’s guitar work. With Larry Goldings on the pump organ, “Save Us All” is pure Sunday morning as Chapman’s croons “My God’s a mighty big God /… My God is good in the kitchen /Make a good meal /from bread and fishes.”
NO CHAPMAN CD would be complete without her signature love songs. “Thinking of You” sets scientific theory against the unregulated chaos of the heart and the sharp thwack of drumstick on drumstick can’t snap her or us out of the spin of “thinking of you.” “Conditional” is a welcome antidote to the “I don’t need you” genre of relationship songs. Chapman crafts a loving kind of covenant vow where the promises we make to each other actually do have strings attached: “There are vows /that must be made /there are terms /that can’t expire /there are words /that must be said / and there are qualifiers ... .”
Our Bright Future is a little under-produced for my taste; I wanted more instrumentation overall. But if you want the young woman who busked in Harvard Yard while going to school at Tufts University, who made her way up from the basement coffeehouses in Cambridge to become the voice of a generation, Our Bright Future is vintage Chapman.
Rose Marie Berger is an associate editor of Sojourners.